Ballroom glamour, gypsy gusto and Tchaikovsky

Karina Smirnoff didn't just pop into her sequins out of nowhere, you know.

There's a reason that she and a string of the other high-octane performers who partner with the celebs on "Dancing With the Stars" have come from Russia or Ukraine. Over there, ballroom dancing has been red-hot for generations.

It will heat up the opening day of Charlotte's Ulysses arts festival, too, along with gypsy dancing, "Dark Eyes" and a host of other symbols of Russia and its neighbors.

The Russians are coming - along with Ukrainians, Belorussians and others - to the Levine Museum of the New South on Saturday. The family-friendly community day launches a monthlong celebration of Russian culture and, especially, one of its best-known incarnations: Tchaikovsky, the composer of ballets, symphonies and other beloved works.

In March, N.C. Dance Theater will perform "Sleeping Beauty." Opera Carolina will stage "Eugene Onegin." The Charlotte Symphony will showcase the charm and storminess of Tchaikovsky's orchestra works.

Performers from those groups will offer brief samples of that Saturday. But the day will mainly be devoted to the likes of folksingers, gypsy performers and cooks - and ballroom dancers.

Americans may not associate Russians with the world of ballroom flashiness. But where they come from, every town has a dance school, says Tatyana Thulien, a Charlotte resident raised in Ukraine. What's the attraction?

"It's beautiful," Thulien says. "It allows you to incorporate everything in your body and soul for self-realization, to get the best out of yourself."

The gypsy dancers will represent an earthier side of the Russian spirit - "full of fire, full of life," Thulien says. "They symbolize freedom of soul."

Besides taking in the performances, people who turn out at the Levine Museum can compete in a trivia contest about Russian history, geography and culture. Russian-speakers will teach basic words and show people how to spell their names in the Cyrillic alphabet. Kids' activities will include art, games and face-painting.

And at midday, the festival will serve up Russian food. The treats will include blinis - crepes filled with sour cream, strawberry jam or butter - followed by chocolates and cookies. Russian tea will wash it all down.

Most of the performers (and cooks) come from the Charlotte area's Russian-speaking community. Estimates of the group's size run as high as 50,000 people.

Even though they've moved far from home, Thulien says, they strive to keep the connection with "the traditions of our ancestors" - and share them with their neighbors in their adopted home.

"Politics, war and economic interests may divide people," Thulien says. "But art unites people. ... It's the best way to encourage mankind's survival on the face of the earth."